Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars: Critical Explorations in the History of Religions

Bruce Lincoln writes in this 2012 book:

* This is not a religious book. Rather, it is a book about religion. Insofar as it aspires to truth, said truth is strictly provisional and mundane.

* Like all proponents of the social and not the divine sciences, they [historians] study human subjects: finite, fallible mortals who occupy specific coordinates in time and space as adherents (and advocates) of particular communities, who operate with partial knowledge and contingent interests (material and nonmaterial) to advance various goals.

* Religion, I submit, is that discourse whose defining characteristic is its desire to speak of things eternal and transcendent with an authority equally transcendent and eternal. History, in the sharpest possible contrast, is that discourse which speaks of things temporal and terrestrial in a human and fallible voice while staking its claim to authority on rigorous critical practice.

* ( 3 ) History of religions is thus a discourse that resists and reverses the orientation of that discourse with which it concerns itself. To practice history of religions in a fashion consistent with the discipline’s claim of title is to insist on discussing the temporal, contextual, situated, interested, human, and material dimensions of those discourses, practices, communities, and institutions that characteristically represent themselves as eternal, transcendent, spiritual, and divine.
( 4 ) The same destabilizing and irreverent questions one might ask of any speech act ought to be posed of religious discourse. The first of these is Who speaks here?—that is, what person, group, or institution is responsible for a text, whatever its putative or apparent author. Beyond that, To what audience? In what immediate and broader context? Through what system of mediations? With what interests? And further, Of what would the speaker(s) persuade the audience? What are the consequences if this project of persuasion should happen to succeed? Who wins what, and how much? Who, conversely, loses?
( 5 ) Reverence is a religious and not a scholarly virtue. When good manners and good conscience cannot be reconciled, the demands of the latter ought to prevail.

* ( 10 ) Understanding the system of ideology that operates in one’s own society is made difficult by two factors: (a) one’s consciousness is itself a product of that system, and (b) the system’s very success renders its operations invisible, since one is so consistently immersed in and bombarded by its products that one comes to mistake them (and the apparatus through which they are produced and disseminated) for nothing other than “nature.”

* ( 13 ) When one permits those whom one studies to define the terms in which they will be understood, suspends one’s interest in the temporal and contingent, or fails to distinguish between “truths,” “truth claims,” and “regimes of truth,” one has ceased to function as historian or scholar.

* the nature of the cosmos is not significantly affected by the content of human speculation. The nature of society, in contrast, exists only insofar as it is continually produced and reproduced by human subjects, whose consciousness informs their constitutive actions, perceptions, and sentiments. When any given discourse—metaphysical or cosmological, as well as explicitly sociological—succeeds in modifying general consciousness, this can have profound consequences for social reality, even if cosmic reality remains serenely unaffected.

* the modern university—with reason (not faith) as its core principle, under patronage of the state (not the church), with arts and sciences (not theology) at the center of its curriculum, designed to produce civil servants and citizens (not priests)—emerged in the nineteenth century and replaced an older institution of the same name, which had taken shape in the Middle Ages.

It’s surely an oversimplification to see this as a direct effect or straightforward extension of Enlightenment values, for other trends (romanticism, nationalism, idealism, capitalism, e.g.) also contributed. But it is certainly the case that religion occupied a very different place in the nineteenth-century university than it did in its predecessor. Rather than being central to the institution’s mission, raison d’être, and organizing apparatus, “religion”— whatever that means—increasingly became available as an object of study and, as such, excited considerable interest.

* a full quarter century elapsed after the final blast of the critical era (Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, 1939) before a discipline of religious studies took shape; and when this did finally happen, it occurred not in Europe, where critical approaches had originated and flourished, but in the United States, where attitudes toward religion consistently were—and remain—kinder, gentler, more cautious, and more reverent.

* When religious studies took shape in the mid-1960s on campuses beyond NABI’s prior clientele and orbit, its students quickly came to include many who were curious and/or conflicted about their own religious commitments and longings, which is to say, starry-eyed seekers of all sorts (this was, after all, the 1960s!), and the standard introductory course on “world religions” was designed to offer a veritable mall of attractive and exotic goods to the would-be consumers. Buddhism, Sufism, shamanism, and Tantra were all given sympathetic if superficial treatment, alongside Gnosticism, Kabbalah, and more staid—but profoundly spiritual exemplars of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Little attention was devoted to the institutional side of religion that so many found alienating or offensive, or to potentially embarrassing details of the historical record. Rather, discussion tended to dwell on the eternal search for meaning: a meaning simultaneously transcendent and most profoundly human, and a search troped as most often successful.

* Most students and scholars in the field, as well as its journals, favored books, and syllabi, reflect the national mood regarding religion. As such, they remain committed to a validating, feel-good perspective, and do not welcome interventions that disrupt the serene, benign, and eirenic ethos they have fostered.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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